The Supreme Court has handed down its decision on the long running ‘gay cake’ case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd and Others. Whilst this is a case relating to the equality legislation of Northern Ireland, the judgment also has some relevance to the laws of England and Wales.
By way of background, Mr Lee asked Ashers Baking, which is a family owned bakers, to make a cake for him with a photo of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street together with the words ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
The owners of Ashers Baking are Christians and, although they initially accepted to make the cake for Mr Lee, two days later they contacted him to say that they could not make the cake and refunded him his money.
Mr Lee, who is gay and was taking the cake to a private event organised by Queerspace, an organisation for the LGBT community in Belfast, brought a claim for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and political belief.
Mr Lee was successful in his claim at both district court level and the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland. However, Ashers Baking appealed to the Supreme Court which overruled the previous decisions.
The Supreme Court held that there was no discrimination because of sexual orientation. It held that the reason for the refusal to bake the cake by Ashers was because of the message on the cake and not because of Mr Lee’s sexual orientation. It held Ashers would have refused to make a cake with this message irrespective of the sexual orientation of who requested it as it was the message that Ashers objected to.
Discrimination can also occur when an individual is treated less favourably because they ‘associate’ with someone with a particular characteristic which is protected under the Equality Act. In this case the relevant protected characteristics were sexual orientation and political and religious beliefs but under equality law can also include other characteristics such as race, sex, age and disability. The Supreme Court felt that for such a claim to be successful there was a need for the association to be with particular persons and discrimination occurs due to that association. This was not felt to be the case here.
The Supreme Court also considered the arguments of discrimination because of political belief. It held that the rights included the right not to be obliged to manifest a belief that one does not hold.
Whilst this case relates to the provision of goods and services, equality legislation is also key in the context of employment law and employers need to ensure that they do not fall foul of these provisions. Our specialist team of Employment lawyers can help you navigate through these provisions and any issues that you may have.
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